TAPARKO, Burkina Faso (Reuters Life!) - When Omar Ouattara made his first gold bar in eight years, it was more than a precious metal that poured out in the red-hot room, hemmed in by security chiefs as steely as the locks on the door.
“It was an outpouring of pride, because it’s the only job I can do with passion, it’s the only job I love and that I’ve done all my career,” he said.
Dressed head to toe in a silver outfit to protect him from the heat of molten gold, he looks more like an astronaut than a man who plumbs the depths beneath the earth.
Burkina Faso’s sole state-run gold mine closed in 1999, and Ouattara got by in the cosmetics trade and by doing odd jobs.
Only when the country’s first foreign-owned mine set up after the government revised its mining codes in 2003 to attract foreign investors with a series of tax breaks did Ouattara find himself back in the hot seat he loves.
Deep in the dusty northeast of the country, the Taparko mine run by Canadian-listed, Russian-controlled High River Gold is the first of four gold mines that have begun operating in the hot landlocked country in the past two years.
Together they produced 5.5 tons in 2008 and they are heading for more than that this year. The government takes a 10 percent free stake in each mine.
“It means currency for the country and at the same time helps to avoid unemployment — and more than that, when one person works, almost all the family benefits,” said Ouattara, 46, one of 403 Burkinabe employees at the mine 200 km (125 miles) from the capital Ouagadougou.
Despite being marked out by its huge cotton production, which accounts for 60 percent of export revenues, the government says it wants Burkina to be known as a mining country.
Five more gold mines are due to open in the former French colony, ranked the world’s second least developed country by the United Nations. The mineral resources ministry hopes to take the continent’s fourth gold slot by volume in the next three years.
“One of the sectors with big potential is gold. There are possibilities for foreign investment in the gold sector,” said Galina Sotirova, country representative for the World Bank.
“The good thing about the gold sector in Burkina is that it is starting to develop at a moment when actually the government has already prepared a very good mining code.
“The worry that we have and the worry I guess that the government has is how the financial crisis is going to impact on the availability of foreign direct investment for investing in the gold sector in Burkina.”
That is just one more worry for the mine’s operators.
Come 5 a.m. and miners are already at breakfast, tucking into three courses. One Canadian old-timer dolefully strums his guitar on the veranda beneath the dark sky and the full moon.
“It’s the mining morning blues,” said a colleague. “He sings it every morning.”
Despite gleaming prospects, the mine has been dogged by problems. It halted for a year because of vibrations in the grinding mill, which cut output by two thirds of that forecasted, to 33,533 ounces for 2008.
So dusty is the Sahelian country that the company, whose share price plummeted from more than $3 to four cents last year, is buying leftover sugar cane molasses from Ivory Coast to spread on the loose dirt roads. It is cheaper than tarring them.
It will also build an enclosure for its pile of ore, as gold dust is blowing away on the seasonal harmattan wind.
Still, industrial mining is much safer than the artisanal gold pits where landslips kill people almost every rainy season.
At the same time, gold prices have been buoyed by the financial crisis, as investors seek refuge in safe haven assets, meaning gold could mitigate the effects of the crisis on Burkina Faso and help put the Taparko mine on track.
“It’s really a savior for the country,” Ouattara said.
Editing by Alistair Thomson and Paul Casciato